Plumber Cracks, Part 2
Written by Berman Black
Wednesday, 25 April 2007 14:56
|Plumber Cracks, Part 2|
His name is burning up the lunch counter. At the supply house in the morning, they take turns trashing on his work. He tops the Parish list of do-not-hires. Rudy Wright is blackballed in the plumbing community, but it’s Bob from Bob’s Plumbing whose neck is on the line.
Bob thought he was making a nice piece of change on his deal with Rudy. Bob used his license to file Rudy’s jobs with the Parish and took a percentage in exchange. Now, Bob has to go before the Plumbing Board and answer for the scams jobs Rudy sold all over the city.
Bob asks Kal to help bail him out, but my boss Kal’s got a strict policy about finishing other people’s jobs.
“I get a bad taste in my mouth following behind people, me,” says Kal.
“Yeah,” I say, trying to read the paper at the lunch counter.
“Am I right, or am I right?”
“Yeah, you right.”
Everyday, workers in this city have to decide how much of their time and energy they’re going to give away to the hard luck case, and conversely, where they can make up the difference. Every time you go on a job, you get those doubts. Which homeowners are telling the truth? Which ones are preying on your good nature? How are you going to sleep at night?
For all the contractor vilification you hear, the story you don’t hear is the one about the epidemic levels of divorce and heart disease among the city’s working class. Diabetes, exhaustion, bankruptcy, anxiety medication, lost fingers, falls from ladders straight to the head so that the guy is “never quite right” after. Nervous breakdowns, exotic cancers, and chronic sinus infections from crawling on your belly through old insulation, dirt, brick and asbestos shingle, old oyster shells and hundred-year-old apothecary bottles.
The house has no doors and no gas, no kitchen sink, but there are three hot plates and the whole place smells like foreign spices. The old woman pays us no attention while we work. A pale androgynous little child with blonde curls follows me around.
The living room is empty except for a treadmill under a sheet and a shrine erected for a young man with a greasy moustache. There are candles for him. A collage of pictures. A few poems written on computer paper. One of the pictures is of the rat-faced man holding the blonde baby.
When we finish, the old woman takes our bill and mulls it over.
“I pay half now. Half later.”
“You pay all now,” says Kal.
“They killed my boy,” she says, pointing at the picture. “They shoot him out front of this house.”
“What that means to me?”
“That’s his baby.” She points, crying, at the blonde child in front of a small television watching a program about baking a pie for a king.
Kal takes off the week of Christmas to go to his hunting lease and shoot hogs. After I finish on Friday, I drive out to Bucktown to placate a jazz singer who is suffering a plumbing crisis. She got my number from a woman who runs the local coffeehouse. In the yard, the jazz singer is wearing a paint-covered apron, putting primer on her baseboards. She has a cauliflower nose and a dimple in her neck. Bucktown’s rebuilding efforts are less organized than its neighbors on the other side of the levee. This particular house has almost three feet of sinkage. The lot on one side of it is overgrown. The lot on the other has been bulldozed.
Right off, I tell her I don’t normally do this kind of thing.
“I get a bad taste in my mouth coming behind someone.”
“Please,” she says, lighting a joint in front of me. “Just do what you can.”
We do a walk-through of her house. From what I can see, the two drunks who came before me have not done a horrible job, just an incomplete one. One I can finish. I quote her a price of $500 and tell her I can start tomorrow.
Contrary to popular sentiment, people who hire jack-legs are not all innocent dupes. A good number are hustlers, trying to save the bulk of their insurance settlements by hiring unlicensed, uninsured workers at half the price.
“There’s more fancy cars than ever in this town,” says Kal.
But because people wave this tax-free money in your face—even if you don’t want to, don’t have a license or insurance, the proper tools or the experience, you’re going to end up jack-legging, walking that precarious line between civic-mindedness and greed.
I head out to Bucktown with the intention of cleaning up the jazz singer’s mess and making it to Mississippi in time to have lunch with some friends. In front of me on Canal Blvd. is a white mini-van loaded down with young, wide-eyed Mexican workers sporting eager grins.
Seven hours later, I’ve cut out two of the jazz singer’s walls. There are no working toilets or sinks in the house when before there was at least one of each. The $500 she gave me is already gone, spent on materials. I explain to her that the job kept getting bigger, that I’m going to need more money. It seems best to blame the guys she hired before me.
“I really didn’t want to do this in the first place,” I say.
She begins to cry. She tells me she understands. She cuts me a check for $200 more to cover my labor and says, “Please just come back. I’ll keep paying you as long as you keep coming back.”
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